America's business community, so concerned in recent years about what executives have described as biased or uninformed news media coverage of free enterprise and the economy, is in danger of losing its one real opportunity in a generation to improve its image.
With the election of Ronald Reagan, an administration was installed that has moved to transform many business goals of recent decades into official policy.
One would have expected a tremendous outpouring of aggressive yet conciliatory responses by business to this great victory--aggressive in the sense of strong vocal support for what has happened and in new corporate plans to translate tax incentives and pro-business attitudes into economic expansion, but conciliatory and helpful to those elements of society adversely affected by altered priorities.
Mostly, there has been silence. Indeed, one executive worried aloud over breakfast last week that the public will seize on the business community in the next few months as the scapegoat for all that seems to be going wrong, because capital spending and expansion plans are being reduced rather than increased.
But this is not the real problem. Most Americans, who themselves have postponed plans to buy a house, car or major appliance, can readily appreciate the weak appetite of corporation management for expansion when interest rates are so high.
More important to perceptions about the business community is the attitude of executives. This is particularly true at a time when the Reagan administration, leading economists and business leaders agree that savings and investing are important keys to long-term stability. It is the public that will make the investment decisions.
And yet, there appears to be a growing attitude that can only be summed up as: "The investor be damned."
The Securities and Exchange Commission, for example, recently overruled its enforcement staff and decided not to lodge a civil action against Citicorp, the big New York bank holding company. There is no need here to assess the allegations against Citicorp or debate the SEC's final decision.
But investors, the public and especially business persons should be outraged by one conclusion of the commission. As reported by Jeff Gerth in The New York Times, members of the SEC contended because Citicorp had never represented to stockholders or investors that its senior management had "honesty and integrity," it had no legal duty to disclose breaches of these basic norms.
To date, there have been no angry responses from the Business Roundtable, Chamber of Commerce, banking community, administration spokesmen or individual business executives to this wretched reasoning. Therefore, the business world should not be surprised if the public concludes that honesty and integrity are not integral to free enterprise, after all.
In another action last week, the SEC adopted on a temporary basis a rule that permits the nation's biggest firms to sell stocks and bonds to the public at a moment's notice, provided they have on file a registration statement that covers a two-year period. There will be no need for an updated prospectus on a company and investors may have a hard time finding out what's happening (Story on Page 11).
At least, that's just a nine-month experiment and it can be stopped if it doesn't work. More troublesome is a decision by General Motors Corp., revealed at the Chicago auto show on Friday by Chairman Roger B. Smith, to effectively gut that company's annual meeting of stockholders. For the first time, he said, there will be two GM annual meetings on May 21 in Detroit.
At the first session, in the Fisher Theater across the street from the firm's headquarters, matters that legally must be done in public will be attended: proxy statement resolutions, election of directors, etc. Stockholders will be allowed to discuss nothing else, such as the future of GM or its talks with the United Auto Workers. Those topics will be taken up at the second meeting, 15 miles away in GM's Technical Center. But Smith, other top executives and directors won't attend the second session because they'll go to a private board meeting.
In a quotation that may go down in history along with "let them eat cake" or "the public be damned," Smith said of GM's newest stockholder-relations idea: "We'll have our technical, financial and marketing people there at the second meeting and they stockholders can ask them questions for two days if they want."
One might accept such arrogance from a two-bit, penny-stock business. But GM is too important to be setting such an example. It doesn't take long to figure out how few investors will be interested in a 15-mile trek to a meeting where second-level executives will answer questions. And the first meeting will be legalistic, so why go at all? Is this what corporate democracy has come to? Is this what business wants?
Sure, democracy is awfully unwieldy. GM meetings have lasted as long as six hours. There is no legal requirement that chief executives take the tough questioning they often face. Professional stockholders such as Washingtonian Evelyn Y. Davis take up too much time with nonsense but Davis and others just as often deal with vital issues for investors.
One of Smith's predecessors as GM chairman, Thomas A. Murphy, came to the National Press Club back in 1978 to talk about business and its many publics. "Everywhere, we see too much doubt and suspicion about the business establishment--about its operation and about the ability of the system to continue its remarkable record of progress." The truth is, he said, "that business has been and is being clobbered in the ideological marketplace."
Smith might want to get out a copy of Murphy's speech, in which business was taken to task for being silent most of the time and not open with its many constituencies. "It makes no difference whether a corporation's top executives are comfortable in this new arena. It's where the action is, and it's where they have to go," Murphy added. Ironically, Murphy suggested that business hadn't worked enough with its stockholders to get their support on current problems. He urged more meetings with stockholders, "on a regular basis and with the participation and action and interested involvement of a company's highest executives."
Still another recent event should trouble business leaders, who have insisted in public forums that all they want is fair news media coverage of their world. Repeatedly, corporate executives have emphasized that they do not want to go back to earlier decades when most newspapers basically printed business press releases and provided no thorough coverage of business and the economy.
But in Trenton, N.J., recently, officials of that city's two newspapers said there are times when advertiser-written material should be printed verbatim, such as when United Department Stores filed for bankruptcy and the company's announcement made no mention of the fact that a major local department store was owned by the struggling firm.
Business and the media should be alarmed by this statement of William D. Singleton, president of the Trenton Times: "We don't have a situation where the newsroom is autonomous." The Times is owned by Washington financier Joe L. Allbritton, chairman of Riggs National Corp., this area's largest banking firm.
To date, the Trenton example of business dictating newspaper coverage has attracted no condemnation by business leaders who have argued so articulately in the past decade for responsibility and credibility as two elements that would produce greater understanding of the economy. As for news media silence on what can happen to credibility if the Trenton situation is accepted as the norm, journalism reviews will have a field-day.
Silence can be costly, as at least one Fortune 500 executive stated last week. J. Richard Munro, president and chief executive of the Time Inc. publishing, cable TV and forest products conglomerate, told an advertising group the past year has been good for business. "But for everyone else, it's been a year of great uncertainty--for the poor, a new host of sacrifices--and for us all, a decline in the ethic of common obligation."
Said Munro: "And I'm concerned at the silence about this from my fellow business executives. Perhaps we're still dazzled by the goodies from Washington for business, especially the tax cuts."
If the public assumes in the coming months that it's business as usual, in terms of secrecy and lack of public involvement by business leaders, business will have only itself to blame. And if investors put all their money in government securities and shy away from business stocks and bonds, who should be surprised?